BELMOPAN, Fri. June 4, 2021– Today, the Senate debated the motion for the revocation of the lease that grants Recological Systems Limited (RSL) control over the operations of the Commerce Bight Port in Dangriga. The Senate ultimately voted to cancel the lease, but the upper house of parliament’s decision to finalize the revocation did not take place without opposition.
During the last meeting of the House of Representatives, the Minister responsible for Ports, Hon. Rodwell Ferguson, introduced a motion to revoke the 25-year lease for the operation of Commerce Bight Port, which was given to RSL by the previous administration (UDP) just two days before the 2020 General Election was called.
The government side of the Senate asserted that the lease was granted by the Barrow administration without proper parliamentary approval, as is required by the Finance and Audit Reform Act. Lead UDP Senator, Michael Peyrefitte, however, told the body that such parliamentary approval was not necessary, since leases do not amount to the disposal of land under our laws.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know why this matter is even before the National Assembly. It doesn’t have to be. The Finance and Audit Act — I am prepared to be educated, Leader of Government Business — but from the Interpretation Act to the Finance and Audit, I cannot find…. I willingly concede to you that if you could show me that clearly leasing land or a sublease to a statutory body, to another person could be considered to be the disposal of that asset… It hasn’t been disposed of. Madam President. The land for which this proposed Port would sit has been leased by the Government of Belize to the Port Authority, since about 2002,” Senator Peyrefitte argued.
Later in his remarks, he said that the lease did not have to be taken to the House of Representatives, since it did not have the requisite characteristics that would make it possible for it to be brought to the House under the Finance and Audit Reform Act.
He suggested that the government may have some ulterior motive for publicly denouncing the lease.
“I don’t see how this can even be a part of the National Assembly to approve or disapprove. If you don’t like the lease or the license or whatever, well then, just cancel it. Why do you need to come to the National Assembly to do this? It doesn’t pass the threshold of the need to come under the Finance and Audit Act at all. So, I will say it has no standing to be here unless there is some need to publicly denounce this to protect Big Creek. I don’t know what it is,” Peyrefitte said.
Leader of Government Business, Senator Eamon Courtenay, subsequently attempted to ‘school’ Senator Peyrefitte on land law. He pointed out that a lease, which is called an estate in land, creates an interest in the land for the leaseholder.
“It creates an interest in land. It creates exclusive possession to the tenants. It transfers an interest from the landowner for the period of the lease, exclusively to the tenant. Don’t say yes, because that’s disposal,” he said.
The issue of whether the granting of a lease amounts to the disposal of an asset may be heard by the courts in due course. The representatives of RSL released a statement following the most recent House meeting in which they indicated that they may seek legal recourse if necessary.
Other Senators are also expecting court action to arise from this and worry that the government of Belize may be subject to yet another judgment that will cause the country to incur even more debt.
“We are hoping that maybe the parties can come to the table and maybe can have some sort of discussion, negotiations on this matter, to try and resolve this matter as best as they can, so that we don’t end up in the courts,” Senator Elena Smith said.
NGO Senator, Osmany Salas, did not support the motion. He stated, “We are of the position that we cannot support the approval of the disposition of the Commerce Bight Port. I must say, though, that it seems to us that this matter might very well find itself in the court.”
Senator for the business sector, Kevin Herrera, made a similar prediction: “in my view, if the contract is canceled, I believe that there will be significant litigation risk and it is quite likely that the company will sue,” he said.
During his remarks, Senator Peyrefitte noted that the reopening of the Commerce Bight Port was a campaign promise by the UDP to the citizens of Dangriga, many of whom gained access to jobs when the port reopened.
In regard to the importance of the project for job creation in Dangriga, Senator Smith said, “if such is done, Madam President, it would ensure that those persons who are in the area who are very much looking forward to the level of employment that this project would have brought to that area, and that persons would be able to see that come to fruition.”
Senator for the Churches, Bishop Alvin Benguche, also commented that jobs are hard to come by in Dangriga.
“I must confess, as Sister Elena pointed out, that jobs are extinct. And at this time, especially in Dangriga, in Stann Creek, the jobs become extremely, extremely important,” he said..
In concluding the debate, Senator Courtenay insisted that the agreement was finalized and pushed through at a time when the government should have been acting as merely a caretaker.
“You continue the day-to-day ordinary affairs of the government; you do not in a smoke-filled room, you do not without public disclosure – as I said on the last occasion – if this was so good for the Belizean people, two days before the election, why didn’t they have it all over the place and boast to the people of Stann Creek that this is what we got for you? So great and so good. No! It was done in secret. It was done in the quiet of night. It was done without public knowledge. It was done by a minister who didn’t have the power to do it. It was done after the National Assembly had been dissolved and it was done two days before the United Democratic Party well knew they would be voted out of the party and so they hurry signed this hoping to bind the incoming administration,” Senator Courtenay said.